To say I am a fan of Kingdom Builder is an understatement. It is one of two games in my library that I have over 100 plays in, the other being another Donald X. Vaccarino design, Dominion. In my game group we used to joke about having “league night” like a bowling league because of how often on a game night we would play two or three games of Kingdom Builder. It is in essence my favorite game, because of the variety it offers, (I am not sick of it at all even after 100+ games) and the simplicity of play. So it is with some trepidation that I approached its sequel, Winter Kingdom. A sequel to a favorite of any kind of media faces very tough odds and huge shoes to fill. Not only due to the strengths of the original but a build up of insurmountable nostalgia. Due to covid I haven’t gotten as many plays of this in as I’d like, despite receiving it in October. I remember foolishly thinking things might be back to normal by then and I’d have plenty of chances to play it that Fall. Hopefully the hope is more justified now, but I have gotten enough plays for an initial impression.
First however, an overview of the game is in order, with some inline comparisons with its predecessor. Winter Kingdom at its core uses the same engine of Kingdom Builder. You draw a terrain card each turn and place three houses on that terrain, attempting to match one or more of the three varying scoring goals for that game. Winter Kingdom has slightly upped the complexity at a base level here by having six terrain types instead of the original’s five, and by including four immovable fort pieces that players can play instead of a house, which count for all purposes as two houses. Additionally while the original game had a lot of natural boundaries created by water terrain which could not be bypassed in movement or played on without special powers, in Winter Kingdom there is ice, which, while not represented in the terrain deck, acts like any other terrain instead of being a barrier. In summary, which will become a repeating theme, Winter Kingdom is much more open than Kingdom Builder. This openness is only then increased by tunnels on each board that allow players to move a piece from one board to another once a turn. A main criticism of Kingdom Builder was that if you had some particularly bad luck with the card draw you could end up stuck in one area of the board and have your whole game sabotaged. There were ways to mitigate this, but Winter Kingdom eliminates this complaint. If you get stuck in this game it is because you played poorly, not because of luck.
The other drastic changes are the boards, which are seven hexes now, double sided and always in play vs the square single sided boards of the original. This provides tons of variability. Each board might be in a different position, orientation or flipped to a different side each game. But most importantly the variable powers of the original are no longer tied to which board is in play. Instead players each have a hand of five powers that they can pay to put in play. More on that economy aspect in a moment, but this is probably the biggest change compared to the original. For one thing it makes the players asymmetrical as each will have five entirely different powers. But it also removes another luck driven aspect as a good card draw in the original might put you next to one of the more useful powers printed on the board. Here you have a sort of puzzle with your five powers, but no player can deny you access or beat you to the punch like in the original game. Additionally these powers can be upgraded. Here again the game is much more open.
In addition to these tweaks on the original formula the game includes an economy system and twist cards that are entirely new. The economy system has one of eight cards that dictates how money is made in a given game. This money is critical for playing the aforementioned powers, and gives players another thing to think about when placing pieces vs just how to score the most points. Two games with the same set-up but different economy cards would play out very differently. There is a powerful super move that players can do with five gold that allows them to use any ability 3 times in a row, which means that money is always useful, even if you have the powers and upgrades that you would like for a particular game. The twist cards are varying conditions that tweak how a given game will play. They are essentially the cherry on top of a variability sundae.
Finally it’s worth noting a few numbers vs Kingdom Builder. The base game contains 18 scoring conditions vs the original 10, and 25 upgradeable abilities vs the original board-printed 14. There is a LOT of game in this box, and even if it never gets any expansions, it contains the variability of Kingdom Builder plus two expansions right on day one. But what the heck do I actually think of the game itself? Even if there is mathematically “more” game than Kingdom Builder, is that better? Well, yes and no. For someone who has played Kingdom Builder over 100 times, this is like candy. It is an evolved and more in depth game with more moving parts to keep track of. In the few plays of it I have had, I have often been stuck in a sort of first gear, still thinking strategically like it is another game of Kingdom Builder and being out-maneuvered by friends who are taking advantage of the whole system. I am excited to explore it more and try to hit top gear in this new and broader system.
With all that said, I do still believe there is a place in the collection for its predecessor. For one thing, it is a simpler and more family friendly game. The original won a Spiel des Jahres and had a lot of hidden depth despite reviewers deriding it as “too simple” at the time. I will still happily play it any time, and it still holds up even through 100 plays. It is certainly the better introductory game. There is also a different feeling to the game by comparison. It is more narrow and possibly a tighter experience. Players are fighting over the powers, there is less flexibility in terms of terrains and with a lack of the caves I mentioned above. There is also inherently less space and more boundaries with the water vs the ice, in addition to there being nearly 100 more spaces to play on. Don’t get me wrong, Winter Kingdom still seems to have some of the confrontation of the original, but it has a different feeling.
It is too early to tell which will ultimately be my favorite, but I am very happy to have a favorite classic of mine iterated upon with Winter Kingdom. It feels different, but I have barely scratched the surface. I am very wary of more complex versions of games I already love, because they often lose the immediacy and simplicity that made the original great. Thankfully I can report that that is not the case here. I look forward to really kicking the tires when there are more frequent game nights, but for now it really does seem like a different evolution with tremendous variability and depth.